Financial Daily from THE HINDU group of publications
Tuesday, Apr 02, 2002
Agri-Biz & Commodities
N. Indian farmers to miss Bt cotton bus
NEW DELHI, April 1
FARMERS in North India Punjab, Haryana and northern Rajasthan who have pinned all their hopes on the Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company Ltd's (Mahyco) Bt cotton hybrids to tackle the American bollworm menace, are in for a major disappointment. The transgenic hybrids, genetically engineered to confer `in-built' resistance to the dreaded insect pest, cannot be planted in the entire northern belt during the current kharif season!
The reason: the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), which, in June 2001, was asked to conduct detailed open field evaluation trials of Mahyco's Bt cotton hybrids under the All-India Coordinated Cotton Improvement Project (AICCIP), confined its investigations to just South and Central zones. The northern States were excluded in last year's field trials, which means that the wonder hybrids technically cannot be commercially cultivated this year in the region.
ICAR was given the mandate to supervise the open field trials of the Bt cotton hybrids only in mid-June, with the official directive to the Project Coordinator of AICCIP being received on June 21, 2001. ``By then, it was too late to conduct trials in the North because cotton is sown there during April-May. And since we were supplied only the seeds of Mech-162, Mech-184 and Mech-12, our exercise was limited to these hybrids and to the Central and South zones (where sowing extends from late-June to August)'', Dr Mangala Rai, Deputy Director-General (Crop Sciences), ICAR, told Business Line.
The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), in its March 26 meeting, approved the commercial release of Mahyco's these three Bt cotton hybrids Mech-12, Mech-162 and Mech-184. The company had also sought clearance for a fourth hybrid (Mech-915), but it was not granted since ICAR had not carried out field trials in this case. Mech-915 was seen as a potential Bt hybrid suitable for the northern region.
``The issue of approval for Mech-195 does not arise because we were never supplied its seeds in the first place. We were asked to only evaluate the other three Bt hybrids'', said Dr Rai
The field experiments were conducted in six locations in the Central zone Khandwa (Madhya Pradesh), Akola and Nanded (Maharashtra) and Surat and Junagarh (Gujarat) and four in the South Zone, namely Dharwad (Karnataka), Coimbatore (Tamil Nadu) and Guntur and Nandyal (Andhra Pradesh). The trials evaluated Mahyco's three Bt cotton hybrids vis-a-vis their non-Bt counterparts, as well as the existing best-performing national and local `check' hybrids as NHH-44.
Dr Rai said the Bt hybrids were tested for their relative performance on the agronomic, growth, seed yields and fibre quality fronts, apart from their resistance to bollworm and sucking pests under protected and unprotected conditions.
``Nobody can raise a question on the authenticity and comprehensiveness of our field investigations, which indicate the yield superiority of the Bt hybrids and their high tolerance to bollworm damage in the Central and South zones'', he asserted.
But, this is certainly not welcome news for farmers in Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan, who together produce nearly a quarter of the country's cotton. Cotton is largely grown in the geographically contiguous tract of South-West Punjab (Bhatinda, Muktsar, Mansa and Ferozepur), western Haryana (Bhiwani, Jind, Hissar, Sirsa and Fatehabad) and northern Rajasthan (Ganganagar and Hanumangarh), covering an area of around 18 lakh hectares.
Last year, the overall crop damage caused by the American bollworm in the three States was estimated at 15.50 lakh bales (of 170 kg each), of which the share of Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan worked out to 7.78 lakh bales, 4.33 lakh bales and 3.39 lakh bales, respectively. The affected area was assessed at 4.53 lakh hectares in Punjab, 3.55 lakh hectares in Haryana and 2.85 lakh hectares in Rajasthan.
Considering the sheer extent of crop losses suffered (officially valued at Rs 1,363.61 crore), a lot of hope and hype has been generated over Bt cotton amongst the region's beleaguered cotton growers. This enthusiasm has also been echoed by politicians and policymakers, keen to divert surplus paddy growing area in Punjab and Haryana to less water-guzzling kharif crops. But even these heightened expectations are now set to be dashed.
Dr Rai admitted that if the credibility of the official machinery regulating the release of genetically modified organisms is to be safeguarded, it would be necessary to conduct the same set of trials for the North zone this year. He, however, added that ''we have not been given any instructions so far in this regard''.
The big question now is whether the Chief Ministers of Punjab and Haryana, having already promised deliverance to their farmers through Bt cotton, would tolerate one more year of open field trials.
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